She stood up and poked her head through the flap behind the driver’s bench. Leclerc was walking from the wagon towards a set of black wrought-iron gates, both looking ready to fall off their hinges. A chill wind blew the valley, and with it the bard could have sworn she heard far-off cries of fear.
Mel watched Leclerc, one hand visibly itching for the weapon hanging from his belt, take an old rusted key from his pocket, unlocking a feeble-looking chain hanging silently from the gates. He then pulled one gate open, then the other, watching as if he expected them to turn into a monster and attack. Once he was satisfied with their entrance, he returned to the wagon, urging the horses once again to movement.
By now, Cadmus and Alastor had joined Mel, and the three of them peered over their benefactors’ shoulders as the vehicle rode through the gates. They followed the overgrown lane as it wound through sagging trees, some dead, some growing in the middle of the road. The sky overhead grew steadily darker, until they finally came to their destination. As the trees cleared, Mel suppressed a gasp; the mansion came into view, covered in vines threatening to crush the very stonework. Its windows, cracked and broken in places, peered out into the dusk like a sad, once-majestic creature pleading for release from its torment. The front of the building was flat, and wide, with its tall walls stretching to either side, with over a dozen small spires standing against the blackening sky. One tall tower, sagging slightly, stood proudly on the front side; through the coming darkness, Mel could barely make out the shapes of more towers further back.
The horses pulled the wagon carefully around some large round object, covered in withered overgrowth, its shape and purpose indiscernible at the moment- but as they passed, Mel noted to herself that the age-old grooves in the path went around it on either side, indicating that it was likely man-made rather than a fallen boulder or an unintentional artifact of the manor’s disrepair.
The wagon came to rest in front of the large set of doors before them. Mel, grabbed her packs and climbed out the back of the vehicle, her boots loudly thudding against the packed dirt ground. Aside from the wind, the manor’s grounds seemed oddly silent; but maybe it was just her imagination.
As the rest of the group gathered in front of the building, Mel looked up, the imposing structure appearing to lean down towards her in the darkness.
“Leclerc,” she said, getting the man’s attention. “Should we be expecting any… unwelcome guests inside?”
He responded after strapping a large, heavy-looking crossbow to his back, as well as a sturdy-looking quiver of bolts.
“Your guess is as good as mine. But it couldn’t hurt to be prepared.”
Leclerc tied the horses to a post near the door, and they gathered near the entrance. A large set of double-doors, slightly ajar and warped from years of fighting the elements, stood beside a smaller, single door- most likely leading to a guards’ lookout in the leaning tower, Mel figured. The architecture itself looked… strange, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on why.
“Our main goal right now,” said the man, his voice commanding despite his attempts to keep it quiet, “is to find an easily-defensible room on the first floor where we can spend the night. It’s too risky to explore the whole building in the dark- we’ll do that first thing tomorrow morning. Once we find a suitable room, Cadmus- you and I will come out, secure the horses, and return with the rest of our supplies, while the rest of you set up camp. Agreed?”
Mel looked to Cadmus, who nodded stoically. Leclerc lit a lantern and handed it to Esprit, who kept close behind him as he opened the creaky door. Cadmus and Alastor filed in behind them, leaving Mel to bring up the back. She took a long, piercing glance out into the woods surrounding the manor, bow in hand, as she stepped carefully backwards into the dark building.
Inside the manor, the architecture struck Mel as even more odd than the outside. She couldn’t quite place what kind of person designed it- the walls and archways were thick and sturdy, common in Dwarven structures, but the molding and designs of the woodwork were curvy and ornate, like Elven sculpture. It was as if the owners picked and chose their favorite styles and somehow blended them all together.
The entrance hall was large, and filled with rubble. Part of the ceiling had caved in, tearing apart an intricate painting angels flying across the sky, and any furniture that had adorned the room was either broken, or rotten, or missing entirely. The far end of the room held another large double-door, similar to the one they had just passed through, but it had fallen off its hinges entirely, exposing that side of the room to the rain and winds from the courtyard beyond. On the left and right sides, closed doors led to either end of the building.
Leclerc walked to the doors on the right side of the room, and, hammer in one hand, pulled on the door handle with the other. The wooden door bent slightly as he pulled, but ultimately didn’t budge.
“Stuck,” said Cadmus, “or locked?”
“Stuck,” replied Leclerc. “Probably warped from years of rain. But that’s a good sign- it means nobody has been through here in a long time.”
Mel nudged the door on the other side of the room, noticing that it shifted slightly. “This one looks usable,” she said, stepping aside.
Leclerc walked back, and gave the door a firm pull. It scraped against the doorframe, but it came loose nonetheless. Esprit shined the lantern through the doorway, where a larger room stood in silence. The group quietly made their way in, and Mel saw that this room was mostly open-air- it was basically a long hall with a tall ceiling, with two courtyards on either side, and the walls on either side were comprised of pillars, allowing ease of passage to either courtyard. Some of the pillars had broken and fallen, however, so she whispered to everyone to keep clear of them.
The five walked down the hall, weapons at the ready, glances darting back and forth to each side. Mel could hardly imagine having the money to live in a place like this- even in its current state, crumbling and overgrown with weeds, this place had to be worth a fortune. It had to have been passed down for generations- judging by the state of disrepair it was in, it probably hadn’t seen a live-in owner in a century or two.
Mel wondered if that was why the architecture looked so strange- maybe it was just older than she had been expecting. It was just so strange- she saw numerous carvings and sculptures that should have helped her identify their maker, or at least give her some information about the previous owners, but all of them were damaged beyond recognition. She just couldn’t shake the feeling like something was wrong here, like the manor itself just didn’t… “fit”.
They passed through another door, and this time they entered a room that may have been a gallery of some sort- many torn and broken picture frames hung from the walls, as well as several spots where the walls had faded, leaving an outline of where a picture once hung. The rest of the furniture, following the trend so far, was either gone or had fallen apart with age.
Leclerc moved to the far side of the room, however, where a door was wedged shut by a piece of fallen ceiling. With Cadmus’ help, they managed to get it open, and beyond, they seemed to find what they were looking for- a medium-sized room, walls lined with empty bookcases, a large fireplace dominating one end, and tattered curtains blowing in a breeze from a single broken window. Mel could tell why they were looking for this kind of a room- if they could cover up the window, there was only one way in or out. It would provide enough security for them to rest until daylight.
“Alastor,” Mel called, directing the sorcerer. “Why don’t you do that trick of yours and light us a fire.”
The old man muttered something to himself and knelt down at the fireplace. Before long, there was a warm fire crackling merrily, giving them a bit more light. Cadmus and Leclerc took two of the bookcases, used one to cover the window, and used the other to hold the first in place. Esprit took out a worn blanket and began using it to sweep the bits of broken glass off to one side of the room.
Before long, they had gotten the room set up like a typical camp, with their bedrolls set up in a half-circle around the fireplace. It was unusual, camping indoors, but Mel had experienced much worse.
“We should head back to the wagon,” began Leclerc, putting his hand on Cadmus’ shoulder. “We still don’t know for sure whether there may be anything lurking here. The rest of you keep alert- we’ll grab what we need and be back as quick as possible.”
Everyone nodded. The two of them readied their weapons, and disappeared through the doorway.
Esprit was tending the fire, and Mel watched as it looked like Alastor, mumbling to himself, was trying to position a large broken piece of a bookcase between his bedroll and the rest of the room, as if he was trying to wall himself off. Puzzled, but not curious as to the mage’s idiosyncrasies, she cleared her throat before interrupting him.
“Alastor,” she began. “Do you have any magic spells that could protect our camp? Maybe alert us if something came nearby?”
The aged sorcerer jumped slightly as she called his name, and barely hid a look of annoyance on his face as she made her request. After she had finished speaking, he let out a sigh, and nodded. He reached into a pouch at his side, took out a handful of what looked like dust, and began walking around the room, sprinkling the dust and speaking in a language Mel didn’t understand. She had heard her share of magic spells being cast, but it never made any sense. For all she knew, he could be speaking gibberish and she would have no way of knowing.
As Alastor continued walking around the room casting his spells, Mel turned to Esprit, who now sat warming her hands. The bard couldn’t help but notice how sad Esprit looked.
“So,” she said, trying to lighten the mood. “This is all yours, huh? How does that make your feel?”
Esprit nodded without facing away from the fire. “Oh… lots of emotions, I suppose. It’s all really intimidating, you know? A few months ago, I had nothing. And now, I have all of this, and more. I don’t even know where to begin.”
“I can see that,” responded Mel. “How exactly did you come to inherit this home, anyway?”
“Technically, it’s been mine since I was a baby,” she replied. “My parents died when I was very young. I stayed in an orphanage in Serasham until I turned seventeen two months ago.”
Seventeen? Mel was shocked at how young this girl was. She certainly seemed much more mature than that.
“On the morning of my birthday, the headmistress came to me with this letter,” she continued. “The letter explained that my parents were very wealthy, and left behind the rest of their estate- which included this property- to be mine to me once I had turned seventeen years old.”
Mel nodded. Then she paused. “Who wrote you the letter? Not your parents, obviously.”
Esprit turned to face her. “That’s one thing I’m hoping to learn by coming here. I don’t know if my parents lived here, or if they just owned it… but I’m hoping I can learn who they were, and whether I have any other family out there. My whole life, it’s just been me. Me in an orphanage with nothing that was really mine, and no friends except for Leclerc-”
“Yeah, about that,” said Mel, interrupting. “How do you know him? He seems a little… old to be your boyfriend.” She stopped herself before asking whether her parents warned her against such dangers.
Esprit blushed and turned away for a moment. “No, no,” she said. “It’s nothing like that. Leclerc is like a brother to me. When he was training to be a priest of Deluz, he volunteered to help out at the orphanage. I think he could tell how lonely I was, and the two of us became close friends. He’s as close to family as I’ll probably ever have.”
As if on cue, there was a knock on the door, followed by Leclerc’s hammer poking through the doorway, in case anyone was readying an attack against anything that entered the room. A moment later, the door opened the rest of the way, and the paladin and the trystborn returned, carrying barrels strapped to their backs.
“Success,” said Leclerc, smiling. “The stable to the side of the manor was undisturbed. We tied up the horses and retrieved supplies- and I fastened loud bells around their necks so that if anything surprises them, the noise will alert whoever is on watch.”
“Speaking of watch,” spoke Alastor, who appeared to have finished casting his protection magic, “who’s keeping watch? Unfortunately, I will have to abstain, so as to recharge my arcane powers.”
As much as she felt he was telling the truth, Mel couldn’t help feel annoyed at that fact.
“I’ll take first,” said Cadmus, setting down his barrel.
“I will take second,” said Esprit.
Leclerc shook his head. “No, Esprit, I must insist. I will take second. You will surely have enough on your mind that you need your rest.”
Mel didn’t hear her protest, and soon everyone except Cadmus was turning in for the night. The bard wrapped herself up in her bedroll, and although she meant to keep the trystborn company for a while, before she knew it, she was fast asleep.
“Are you the one I am looking for?”
The man stood on the top of a mountain, facing away from Mel. He wore black, and was silhouetted by the red sun.
Mel opened her mouth to say something, but no sound came out. She tried to scream, but it only pulled her further from him.
“No… you are not the one I am looking for.”
He began to walk away, and as he walked away, he sank down into the mountain. Mel tried desperately to scream at him, to get him to return, when she realized she could no longer breathe.
She was awoken with a start by Leclerc, and after sitting up and gathering herself, she realized she heard something she wasn’t expecting- birds. She could hear them through the broken window, where a sliver of sunlight peeked through and hit the wall of the room.
The group got up, gathered their things, and set out to secure the manor and make sure it wasn’t inhabited. Upon leaving their camp, however, Mel was struck by how different everything seemed- it wasn’t simply a matter of being able to see their surroundings better… the entire environment, even places they had seen at night, no longer felt like they were as dangerous. Nobody had any problem splitting up into two smaller groups to cover more ground, and before long, they have covered what seemed like the entire building. They found no signs of any recent intruders, and nothing that looked suspicious.